Don’t want a generic redesign? Learn from those who focused

Creating a distinctive newspaper design or newspaper redesign

Two clients, two very different, and distinctive, design solutions.

Occasionally I get emails from prospective clients, or people working on their own redesigns, or others just interested in publication design, that are worth sharing on the blog. Here’s one that came through over the weekend:

Question: “We’re interested in doing a redesign, but concerned about looking like everyone else. Our community is distinctive and we’d like our look to be the same. How can we guarantee that our redesign won’t be generic?”

Answer: This good question has me looking back on the most distinctive designs created with clients, such as the sophisticated and orderly Harvard Crimson or Personal Journal section of The Wall Street Journal, or the San Francisco ExaminerEmirates Post or Standard of Nairobi, Kenya, all of whom created sassy but sharp tabloid designs. Each look is distinctive and original in its own way. If you want to avoid a generic design, take a clue from these and other focused clients, and move forward strategically with best practices like these:

  • Articulate your mission as clearly as possible. If the mission of your publication is muddy – you are trying to be too many things to too many people – your redesign process will wander around in the dark. Clarify who you are, how you are trying to serve your readers, and how you want to stand out in the market via a Newsroom Mission Statement. From there, create a Design Strategy to uphold that mission. Put both in writing for everyone’s sign-off before proceeding into prototypes. If you think you can equally please all kinds of readers (some like serifs! some like sans! some like blue! some like red!), you’re doomed. (And yes, as a journalist, I know how skeptical newsrooms can be about consultant-speak like “mission statements.” I’ve seen some bad ones along the way. But I can honestly say the worst publications I have seen are those that lack any clear articulation of who they are, who they want to be, where they want to go.)
  • Don’t try to placate everyone on your staff. I often recommend assembling a Steering Committee across departments, to provide input on your redesign process, from writing mission statements to prototyping (with or without a consultant) to finalizing your Design Style Guide. The danger in this? Too many people think they can have a say at every step of the process. From the start, understand “who decides.” Will it be the editor? Publisher? Art director? Some magic combo of these? A group of 12 can offer good input along the way, but know when to say when – they can’t all make the final decisions together. Compromise = mediocrity.
  • Don’t let silly myths, edicts or preconceptions hold you back. I’ve seen projects where a copy editor says “italics should never be used and should be banned.” A publisher says “I was once told that red is an angry color, so let’s avoid it.” A staff artist says “ragged right type works best.” And then those things get arbitrarily added to or subtracted from the design. The result? A Frankenstein’s monster of a design. If no one on your staff has formal graphic design training PLUS an understanding of how design upholds journalism and brand integrity, then trust your consultant to make good recommendations. (Related blog post debunking design and journalism myths.)
  • Understand your history. The onset of “cold type” and ’70s design standards led to a homogenization of newspaper and magazine design. (Helvetica! Franklin! Times Bold!) I’ve had more than a few clients who cling to basic font sets like that, and lose sight of the distinction that may have defined their brand in earlier eras. Go into your archives, get inspired by good work done by those who came before you, and understand how your design has changed through the years. For some of my clients, something as simple as brushing off and updating a classic logo can make all the difference toward creating “distinction.” This doesn’t mean everything in the past is worth reviving, but often you’ll be inspired by how fresh some of the older approaches look now. (Or at least how open your predecessors were to trying different things. In one recent project, a few newsroom staffers kicked and screamed at the notion of “integrating” advertising into “their” pages. So the publisher and I went into the paper’s archives and found, from the late 1800s, beautiful, energetic pages that mixed advertising, clearly labeled, among the stories. These reminded us of what works well … OMG! … on a web page!)

There’s obviously a lot more involved toward creating a “distinctive” and successful design – evaluating the thousands of fonts that are available, understanding which few colors will really define your brand best (and print well on newsprint) and where and how to use them, creating and orchestrating page grids to avoid monotony. But the above tips may get you on your way to clarifying the early stages of the process.

Have a question about the redesign process, or how to create distinctive designs? Email me anytime at



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